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Book review: Harare North

 Author: Brian Chikwava– Caine Prize winner, 2004

Publisher: Jonathan Cape, London

Year of publication: 2009

Pages: 230 (Hard cover)


Harare North is a novel narrated mostly in first person by an unnamed asylum-seeker from Zimbabwe.

It starts as the narrator arrives at Gatwick airport with only an old cardboard suitcase that has his mother’s scent and an objective to make US $5,000 – to bribe his way into being a free man again back home, and for a special ritual ceremony for his dead mother’s spirit. He is immediately detained for 8 days by immigration officers as soon as they learn of his refuge-seeking status.

After being released, he moves in with his cousin Paul and Sekai- Paul’s wife. Sekai is, as described by the narrator, a ‘lapsed African’. She has a dog instead of children, doesn’t bother cooking for visitors and throws away the small bag of groundnuts that the narrator brings from Zimbabwe because they ‘probably have disease’.

The narrator is a Mugabe sympathizer and a member of the Green Bombers, a youth movement whose work is to ‘only look for enemies of the state’. He therefore detests Sekai’s and Paul’s anti-Mugabe views. Sekai, for instance, says that the Green Bombers are “a bunch of uneducated thugs that like hitting people with sticks”. He is in denial about the mess that is happening in Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s reign such as people being evicted out of their villages for mining activities.

Besides being very imposing and manipulative he is also a freeloader. When he discovers that Sekai is having a sexual affair with a Russian man, he extorts money from her, for him to keep the secret from Paul. In addition, lives off his childhood friend Shingi (when he’s not working odd jobs in between) after he moves out of his cousin’s house and does so with entitlement. He also kills Shingi’s growing infatuation with their teenage housemate Tsitsi by hiring a Polish prostitute to sleep with him.

However, there are instances where the author makes the reader pity the narrator. This happens especially when he narrates about his past: the circumstances under which his mother passed away, him having been in jail and raped while there- under the threat of having a sharp bicycle spoke being driven into his heart, and the miserable fact that he believes that being HIV-negative can in no circumstance be any good. [How can anything negative mean good?]

Through humor, we get to see the grim existence that immigrants (legal and illegal) and asylum-seekers go through in London: ‘Harare North’. Some, like Shingi are forced to be BBC (British Bottom Cleaners) in old people’s homes, for them to make more money.

Inasmuch as Harare North is overtly about immigrant living in London, I see it as a mirror of Zimbabwe; what with the pro and anti-Mugabe factions, people just trying to eke a living despite their disadvantaged circumstances, and living in fear of those at the top -immigration officers in Harare North and Mugabe’s minions in Zimbabwe.

Harare North is a very sad story told in a very intense and comical way. It will have you laughing out loud at one moment and being irritated the next. The language is as exciting and sneaky as the story itself.

The last few chapters will have your head reeling along with the narrator’s, as the story escalates, and the narrator appears to have a mental and emotional breakdown.

I highly recommend it to anyone who’s looking for an eccentric read.

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Featured

Art on skin: Valary Mdeizi

Self-taught makeup artist Valary Mdeizi has made her art more than just about making her clients -her canvases- prettier. She went pro in 2013 for a music video shoot, and that train has been chugging ever since.

Her art is inspired by nature, cultures, poetry, paintings and people; among many other things.

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😍 Photo courtesy of Valary Mdeizi

Here is a quick Q&A with her.

Who are the people and/or brands that have inspired you in the course of your career?

Pat McGrath

What do you like most about your job?

I love that I get to do what I enjoy the most which is create art, and also experience the feelings it evokes on clients after I work on them. Pure joy.

If you weren’t a makeup artist, what else would you be?

I would be a musician, art curator or an economist.

Do you have a style that sets your work apart from other makeup artists?

I feel like I’m still discovering a lot about myself- including my artistic style. However, people tell me that they can distinguish something that I’ve worked on [so I might have a style or technique that screams -or whispers- my name🙂].

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Valary Mdeizi’s makeup magic on a model’s face. Photo courtesy of Valary Mdeizi.

Do you do special effects make-up?

Yes, I do.

How often do you find yourself creating special effects, and what’s the most memorable special effects look you ever created?

Not so often. I usually do it when working on films or commercials requiring it. My first special effects make-up job was really special to me. It was for an infomercial about bombings that had previously happened and so I created a burn on an actress. I remember meeting the actress afterwards and she told me of how people had called her after seeing the ‘burn’, asking if she was okay.

What’s the biggest project that you’ve worked on; solo or collaborative?

I’ve been blessed to have worked on a number of projects that became big so it’s hard for me to pin point just one. It’s never a solo project even when I create concepts. It’s always collaborative as everyone involved brings out their A-game to ensure the project is a success: photographers, stylists, hair stylists…

Tell me about the experience of working with Osborne Macharia on his ILGELUNOT project.

Black Panther ‘Ilgelunot’ was one epic project that I worked on. It was revolutionary especially on its relevance at this time and age.

We’ve worked together (with Osborne) for years and it’s always been the same from day one. He’s the kind that respects your input to a project as an artist and is very professional.

When you work with the same people for a long time, trust me, it ceases to be work and becomes like a creative convention. Always fun.

-Valary Mdeizi

Which are some the monumental makeup jobs that you’ve had in your career?

I would say working on the film Watu Wote; it being based on a true story and being nominated for the Oscars, first Kenyan film to ever get a nomination. It also won the student Oscars.

What’s the most important beauty tip that you’d give to both men and women?

It would be to moisturize and to use sunscreen!

Do you do your models’ photoshoots and shoot setups on your own? If not, which other professionals do you collaborate with to produce your work?

No.
I love working with other amazing artists who are exceptional with things that I’m not great at like  photography,  fashion styling,  hair styling,  set design  etc.
I have worked with: Lyra  Aoko,  Victor Ndalo,  Joseph Kiragu -­ photographers, Richard Kinyua  &  Corrine  Muthoni‐ hair  stylists, Kevo  Abbra  &  Lydia  Omolo – fashion  stylists
… to mention but a few.

What’s your favorite makeup brush? Which is the one product that you can’t work without?

The flat top kabuki brush.

Product I can’t work without: clear lip gloss. Always comes in handy.

Do you have a make-up pet peeve?

I have quite a number but let me just say dirty makeup and dirty makeup applicators: brushes & sponges.

Favorite local makeup product brands and stores?

Suzie Beauty  (dark  foundation  shades  only), Canvas Cosmetics for liquid
lipsticks (Mara, Rumba, Smooch, Hatari, Dolce) and Uturi (for  hair 🙂 )

What’s the best lesson that you’ve learned from your years as a makeup artist?

Learning never stops, to always work on my art and to never be content.

Does self-doubt ever kick in? If yes, how do you fight it?

It used  to, but one thing I learnt  early when starting out is that self-doubt  has killed more  dreams than failure ever will, so I’d rather do  something and fail as it’ll be a lesson.

Is being a makeup artist your full-time job?

Yes, it is.

What’s the one thing that you wished you had when starting out?

A mentor.

Do you have a mentor? Are you someone’s mentor?

I don’t have one.  However, I mentor a number of artists.

Since I didn’t have one when I needed them makes me want to be there for someone else; to help them avoid the mistakes I made while starting out, and to guide them whenever necessary.

Against all odds: Dan Oketch

Imagine losing the freedom to not only do what earns your coins, but also what keeps you level-headed… That’s what happened to Dan Oketch nearly year ago. How he lost that freedom is nowhere near the start of his artistic journey neither is it its end, but it definitely fueled his career as an artist.

Back when Supa Strikas was the -it- comic,  and his age mates were fascinated by the football prowess of ‘the world’s best striker- Shakes Makena- and his teammates, Dan was mostly captivated by the remarkable illustration of the comic; so much that he started drawing the characters. He was in class 3, and that’s when he started exploring and practicing art.

He continued drawing comic characters till he was in class 6 when a friend introduced him to Maono Cultural Group in Dandora- an organization that nurtured those with talents like his. Here, he learned the basics of drawing. Circa 2009, he moved on to GoDown Arts Centre– a bigger arts hub. To him, it was “a new world of creativity”.

Here, he met Patrick Mukabi, who would end up becoming his mentor. On days when Dan couldn’t afford the fare to go to the studio or back home from the studio, Mr. Mukabi (fondly known as Panye in art circles) would offer to drop him home or sometimes give him fare to commute home: Korogocho (Koch). Patrick Mukabi was also the first person to take him to an art gallery.

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Dan Oketch with a model.

By the time he was finalizing his primary school education, he was confident enough with his skills, that he started tutoring children on the basics of drawing, under the blanket of Ayiera Initiative in Korogocho.

After completing high school, he decided to start a project that would promote art in his society, which he dubbed MusicArt. To host an event for the project, he needed money that he didn’t have, so he fundraised and got 10,000 KES. The event was dubbed G-Concert: G-Jue, G-Inue, G-Pange. In 2016 alone, he had organized three editions of G-Concert, with the biggest one having attracted a crowd of 1,500 people. This was a great achievement for him.

In 2017 however, Dan was imprisoned for close to a year-11 months-, and having been the vision-bearer of G-concert, it fizzled out.

His sentence affected him psychologically. However, during the period of his incarceration, he got the idea of drawing patterns on people’s bodies. If keen, you’ll notice that his geometric lines and curved patterns also incorporate the number ‘5’ a lot. The significance of this number not only sheds light on the ability of his hands and the multiple things that he can create with them but also and more importantly, the freedom of creating art that he has now, then denied by having his hands ‘cuffed’ while in prison.

The number 5 to Dan is an expression of freedom as much as it is a tale of what he can do as an artist; drawing, painting, interior and exterior decorating, customizing shoes, bags and clothing…

After getting out, he had to start from the ground up. He started by seeking models to draw on, but that came with its challenges as he couldn’t afford to pay them. His resolution was to draw on himself, initially using his sister’s make up. He would then take photos and post them on his social media. With time, he started gaining popularity as a result of his consistency and the exceptionality of body art.

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One of Dan’s designs on a model’s arm.

His body art skills have seen him work with organizations such as EABL, Bata, The GoDown Arts Center during their events such as the monthly GoDown gig, as well as media personalities and individuals. He continues to draw on

Currently, Dan is mentoring 3 gentlemen and 1 lady in drawing and body art. He does this to give back to the society he grew up in and to have apprentices for his work, as his client base keeps on growing.

His motivation to keep creating has always been his society and the appreciation he gets regarding his art. Dan Oketch is inspired by artist Longinos Nagila, who pushes him to keep working towards making his work better, and whose work he says would drive him to tears.

Art has been very cathartic in Dan’s psychological healing journey- specifically body art-, as has been talking to professional counselors.

He currently works from the Rooftop Studio, Landmark building at Kariobangi.

i am a dream still dreaming
-nayyirah waheed, Salt

Staying buoyant: Swift Graffiti

The origin of his artist name is a story involving a trip to shaggz, a bottle of soda, a young light-skinned African boy and his grandma. Now in his 10th year doing graffiti professionally, Swift is one of the pioneering graffiti personalities in Kenya. He however did not start his artistic journey with a spray can; he started by drawing on paper, until he realized that there were too many people doing the same and decided to broaden his scope. In his words, he was “chosen by graffiti.”

His crossover into graffiti started with painting matatus (public service vehicles), shortly after graduating from high school. He narrates how working in the colorfully chaotic and fast-moving matatu industry made him the competitive artist he is now. “There would be new a new matatu to paint every other day, and the need to paint the most attractive visuals.” This had him chasing quality and quantity.

The satisfaction of working in the fast-paced matatu graffiti world did not last long however. With the introduction of ‘Michuki rules’, graffiti on matatus was declared illegal. Business went down and even worse, his artistic expression was muffled. He had settled in the joy of his art moving around different neighborhoods on wheels, and so the effects of the ban led him to seek artistic excitement elsewhere.

“Graffiti is very exciting. It hooks you like a drug. Without your fix you can barely function.” – Swift

By the time this ban was effected, Swift- among others- had been involved in a number of events that had propelled him as a graffiti artist. The ones most memorable to him were WAPI (Words and Pictures) and Amani Lazima, a workshop that was organized and run by Sarakasi Trust. These two events allowed him to practice his art and through them, he would even get access to paint in neighborhoods other than his own. Unfortunately, both events started going under but by then, he’d already gained momentum and started painting independently.

Commissioned work

With the newly adopted niche came commissioned work. Initially, it was performing artists who wanted video shoots with graffiti backgrounds, then came schools, churches, organizations and individuals seeking to push specific notions and discussions. Most of those campaigns and were and still are targeted at young audiences: teenagers and those in their twenties. “Graffiti is eye-candy to young people,” Swift says.

As much as he gets commissioned work, he tries hard to do weekly personal projects. These grant him happiness, center his inner self and also keep his skills sharp. He says, “… it doesn’t matter to me if people acknowledge these personal projects or not. I’m happy to just share them with the birds and the trees.”

He started by working purely in Nairobi and has since worked outside Nairobi, including overseas in places like Adelaide, Australia. “I have painted in low and high places. I have painted inside dumpsites at Dandora and Korogocho as well as in surburbs.”

Swift has trained and mentored about 300 people both locally and internationally, through workshops. He trains them on how to use their art for advocacy, pricing their art and keeping their own financial records.

Technique and style

From his observation, there aren’t a lot of techniques in the country. A lot of artists’ go-to tool is a paint brush. He describes his technique as being aerosol-based, particularly by using an airbrush (a tool that he learnt how to use back when he used to paint matatus) and spray paints.

His style currently features a lot of human figures with futuristic aspects. Regarding this, he quips: “there’s nothing stopping me from imagining what we will look like in the future. Rings worn on our ears today might be worn on other body parts differently in the future, you know…”

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@originalkoffee coffee sessions

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Onto that #afrofuturistic #glitch

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Challenges

It has not been all rosy however. Among other things is being stereotyped by corporates especially, in the category of dropouts, drug junkies, latecomers, people with short attention spans, etc. just because he is an artist, more so a graffiti artist. As a result, he and others end up working with agencies as their middlemen. Although social media has made reaching out to corporates easier and faster for him, working with agencies that take a cut of their earnings remains a challenge to him.

There has also always been the risk of getting shot or arrested, if not both. He has been arrested before and has learnt that with the shady justice system, if you aren’t well connected or with a lot of money, you’d rather stay out of painting at night. “You’ll be arrested in the night and the charges in court will not be for painting walls illegally. They will be for a totally different offence that you did not commit.”

Another issue that he and his ilk have had to deal with  is being regarded as ‘not proper artists’ by some artists who exhibit in galleries. Such double standards. “Some don’t even like being in the same meetings with us (graffiti artists),” he says. Continuing, he explains that “graffiti is obviously different in its form and expression from the kind that hangs in galleries. It also gets very political and unapologetic about it.”

Rewards

He says he gets a lot of expected and unexpected rewards from his career. Top of the list is the pleasure and satisfaction of doing individual and sometimes illegal artwork. “Some of the people who engage me when I’m doing my artwork are those considered lowly by our society -street kids and homeless people. I end up learning new things and even more, they give me new thinking perspectives.”

Next comes the money; “I live entirely off my art.”

“I share my artwork with anyone and everyone out here. This is what motivates me to keep doing graffiti.” – Swift

Best and worst experiences

“The best experiences in my career have been travelling, diversifying my painting scopes and worldviews, and of course the money! The worst experiences have been the frequent struggles that come with pursuing art as a career; losing friends and relationships and fighting society’s standards of respectable jobs being only the white collar ones.” Regardless of these bad experiences and challenges, Swift says that he wouldn’t trade his career for any other.

To upcoming artists, he advices them that “art needs a lot of patience. Lose the urge to be instantly gratified. Patience helps to cultivate your style as an artist.”

Fun facts about Swift

  • Locally, cartoonist Gaddo, the late comic strip artist Frank Odoi of the Akokhan comic fame, afro futuristic artist Fruit Junkie and artist Patrick Mukabi inspire him. Internationally, he is inspired by the works of Sen 2, Monk E and Mad C.
  • The color purple features a lot in his works.
  • He listens to 90s rap, reggae, afrobeat and dubstep. He usually paints with the tempo of the music playing.
  • He has only held an office job once, from which he got fired two weeks in.

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Making portraits

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BSQ Crew- Breathing life to walls

Located inside a train at the Nairobi Railways Museum is the BSQ Crew art studio. Inside this unique space are amazingly decorated walls and seats. There are also some paintings hanging on different parts of the walls. It is such a magical space to work from.

The Bomb Squad Crew, better known as BSQ Crew is a street art group comprising of three amazingly talented artists. These have managed to combine their different styles and techniques to come up with amazing murals. The group comprises of Kaymist4 who uses mechanical features such as bolts, screws and gears in his murals, Thufu-B who incorporates lines and curves into his works and Msale whose murals always feature distinct abstract afro patterns.

 

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Thufu B and Kaymist inside their studio.

During our visit to the studio, we got to speak to both Thufu-B and Kaymist4 as Msale was away working on a project. The trio met in 2013 at the GoDown Art Center while under the mentorship of Patrick Mukabi, a renowned Kenyan artist. According to Kaymist4, their ability to blend their different techniques and styles is the main factor that brought them together.

The BSQ art studio was officially opened in May 2018. They always wanted a studio where they could independently work from but had never imagined getting one in a train. “Getting this studio shook the art industry”, says Thufu-B. The main task was to work on the train and make it a favorable working space. They worked tirelessly and transformed the train into a studio, with enough working space and even a resting place as they think of their next projects.

BSQ Crew focuses on graffiti for various reasons. “There is more appreciation by the people who come across the murals on various parts of the streets. I also got into it to challenge myself as I was using canvas before. The money in graffiti is also good.”Kaymist4 says. For Thufu-B, he moved to graffiti from painting on canvas as a way of looking for new experiences. “I wanted to go big in art and showcase my work to more people.” He adds that graffiti offers faster cash as opposed to painting on canvas and showcasing in galleries.

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The train coach re-purposed into their studio.

Speaking on art generally in Kenya, Thufu-B ascertains that most Kenyans prefer Graffiti to paintings. According to him, his paintings are mostly accepted outside the country. ”I paint traditional African women before colonization and slave trade began but interestingly, my clients are all from abroad” he says. He is quick to add that he paints that because it is what he can relate to.

For Kaymist4, he believes that Kenyans should learn about art from a young age. “Kenyans do not appreciate paintings so much because they are not taught to embrace art from an early age, for example in schools”, he says. He adds that he always leaves room for people to interpret the message of his art as they please. ”I let them derive the message on their own as they please”, he says.

BSQ Crew has collaborated with other artists locally and internationally. “We have worked with almost all the renowned Kenyan graffiti artists. We have also worked with a Californian hip hop ambassador and Swiss artists” says Kaymist. They also participated in the Sanaa Festival in Adelaide, Australia where they collaborated with Australian artists. The BSQ Crew gets both corporate and individual commissions from locals and foreigners.

They are also involved in community projects. In Kaymist4’s words “Once in a while, we carry out community projects. We would like to do more of those but lack of paint is usually a challenge.” Thufu-B adds that whenever they are left with paint after completing a project, they work with various communities in Nairobi. “We have painted in Jericho with our remaining paint”, he says.

Another way in which they give back to the community is by offering free mentorship to upcoming artists. “We do it for free because we were also received free mentorship when we were starting out”, says Thufu-B.

The crew has had their share of challenges. For Kaymist4 his main challenge was convincing his parents that he wanted to live on art alone. “I had to really prove myself to my parents for them to concur with my decision”, he says. He also adds that some people may belittle an artist’s work which can be demoralizing to the individual. “It is also hard to get a market for my murals yet it is what I make a living out of”, he says.

They also face what they term as minor challenges which they manage to overcome. These include painting without interference from outsiders and sometimes having the right materials. “We may not have a variety of colors but we still manage to come up with great pieces even with two colors”, Thufu-B says.

Both Thufu-B and Kaymist4 would like the public to understand that graffiti is not all about vandalism. According to them, graffiti is a form of adding life to any plain space. They therefore urge people to embrace graffiti more. The two artists conclude by saying that they love challenges and there is none they won’t try out. “BSQ may go to the moon”, concludes Kaymist4.

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Art on an old train coach by Msale.

Graffiti Girls Kenya: Using graffiti to tackle social issues

Founded in 2015 by one of Kenya’s pioneer graffiti artists Douglas Kihiko, famously known as Smokillah, Graffiti Girls Kenya is an initiative that involves in more than just spraying colorful designs, drawings and messages onto walls and other surfaces. Together, they confront social issues that affect women in their society; issues such as cervical cancer, mental health and rape culture.

On how Graffiti Girls Kenya came to being, Smokillah who in March 2018 was a TED Talk speaker at a session in Mombasa’s Aga Khan Academy says, “It was in 2015. I used to train a group of young boys in this studio.” He points to a studio in front of us, with walls littered with graffiti, as is a lot of the surrounding wall space on the rooftop of PAWA254 where we are sitting on what looks like re-purposed bus seats under a shed. He continues, “I started noticing a few ladies who would come and peep through that window at what we were doing, then they would walk away probably intimated by the male only classes. That was when the concept of this initiative was born.”

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The shed.

With us is one of the graffiti girls, Dinah, who also happens to be the first ever protégé of Smokillah at Graffiti Girls Kenya. She says that she was inspired into graffiti by “the likes of Smokillah and Bankslave who have done graffiti in Kenya for years.” Among her reasons of being a graffiti artist are to show other girls that they can also work a spray can into a career in the male-dominated graffiti world and even more, to be actively involved in shedding light on injustices against women.

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Smokillah and Dinah.

The goal of the initiative is to do communicative murals and as many workshops with young people as they can. In line with this, they have been involved in goodwill projects in Mathare, where the aim is to not only have fun as they beautify walls, to tap talent and spark interest, but also to keep the kids involved. Some of the other projects that they have worked on have been at:

  • An art workshop with kids at Korando Education Center in Kisumu.
  • Mural and graffiti art at Maryhill Girls High School. Here, they also discussed topics such as child labour with the students, in collaboration with Akili Dada.
  • Precious Blood Riruta and Kenya High School.
  • Blaze Summit- a youth mentorship program- at Eldoret

The workshops that they have been doing in schools have had very positive reception from the students, since they are a deviation from the norm of the 8-4-4 curriculum. In Smokillah’s words, “It is very exciting and amazing to see the students express their creativity.” They have also had encouraging feedback from across Africa, with the concept being widely applauded.

They also offer classes to those interested in the art. The classes were initially free, but now they charge KES 2,000, to cater for materials used.

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potrait creation class.#graffitigirlskenya

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The ‘graffiti girls’ are not restricted to only working under their mentor, and have carried out successful graffiti projects on their own. Dinah and other ladies recently worked on a mural at KRA offices, and also worked with Dodi -a bus manufacturer- to beautify some of their buses.

Nothing comes without its challenges and as much as these bold graffiti artists would love to do more school visits and workshops, financial constraints lower the frequency. They would also like to do more murals in Nairobi’s CBD and other public spaces, but there’s still the risk of getting arrested. As such, mural artists in Nairobi have a long way to go before they can freely express their creative freedom.

Their future focus is to continue molding girls artistically and emotionally, and hopefully, to also have all-rounded art training- drawing on paper, painting on canvas, graffiti… They are not just going to train-and-let-go, but rather, build a web of empowered female graffiti artists.

I wouldn’t have left without wanting to know the graffiti artistes’ take on art galleries and where they think graffiti ranks on the contemporary art space, to which they commented that galleries are very therapeutic, but not accessible to everyone. “We do graffiti on the streets where everyone can see it. We do it for the citizens at Muthurwa, OTC, Mathare, Majengo, and other places.” Regarding graffiti’s placement in contemporary art, Smokillah remarked that “graffiti is at the top of the deck. The market is large, local corporates are embracing graffiti, and the possibilities are endless!”

“Always feed your creative, and keep painting.” – Smokillah

Spraying color onto Nairobi’s walls: Kerosh

With his headphones on, neither the blaring matatus nor the endless stares and comments by the curious onlookers do take his focus away from the mural right before him. As we approach him, Kerosh unplugs his headphones and quickly descends from the ladder he is using for support. He leaves his working tools hanging on one side of the ladder-a clear indication that he is not yet done painting. A quick glance at his apron and I can tell this is a job he has done for many days. The spills on it say it all.

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Kerosh, the graffiti artist

 

Kerosh is a graffiti artist whose work is inspired by his day to day interactions. He therefore has no constant theme or message as these interactions keeps changing every now and then. He goes on to explain why he enjoys painting the walls in the streets. “There are no restrictions as to who gets to view the art on the walls as opposed to galleries where people are sometimes charged to view art. Not everyone is in a position to pay even though they’d love to see the art”, he says. Painting on the streets therefore gives everyone an equal chance to view his art.

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part of the wall painted by Kerosh’s mates

 

Kerosh affirms that his art not only earns him a living but also enables him to be in a space where he experiences a peace of mind and personal progress.  He says that he has made money out of his work to a point where he uses that money to carry out free projects. “This is a free project and I am happy to do it”, he says with a smile.

He goes on to explain the painting he is working on. “I am trying to show the nurturing element in both humans and animals. Maybe if people understood that animals have the nurturing element in them too, they’d protect their natural habitats”, argues Kerosh. The specific painting on the wall across Nairobi’s Muthurwa market consists of a mother elephant extending its trunk to her calf, trying to help in a way. Near the elephant is a woman carrying her child while trying to protect her with her hands.

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Kerosh at work

Other beautiful pieces are found on other spots on the wall. “My group mates have worked on the other paintings along this wall”, he affirms. He further says that they work as a group and are mostly fond at the Railway Art Museum where they mostly practice their art.

Inspiration and beginning

Kerosh discovered his talent in art at a young age. “In nursery school, I was always fascinated by the fact that the books we were using had pictures of things we were familiar with. I wanted to know how to draw such things”, Kerosh says. Later, he came across Gado and his political cartoons and KJ’s famous comic strip named ‘Head on Corrision’ in the newspapers and was greatly inspired by these artists. “I wanted to come up with something similar, but not in the dailies as I had observed that not everyone had access to newspapers”. He wanted to ensure that his work was accessible to everybody.

In 2007 he started drawing with inspiration from what he observed in the society. He is quick to add that his art is not always meant to please the people, but also to spark debates around various issues in the society. According to Kerosh, his work stands out because it has a lot of his personality, culture and influences in it.

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A complete mural on one side of the wall

Challenges

Kerosh is glad that he has managed to overcome all the challenges that have come his way, especially when he was starting out. “It was hard to be allowed to paint on the walls but now they understand and are starting to embrace such art works”,he says.

Having the freedom to paint whatever one wants was also a challenge as they previously didn’t have total control of what they wanted to paint. “Not having total freedom with your work is not anything an artist would want to happen” he says.

Despite the challenges, Kerosh is grateful to have taken part in notable projects across the country. “I have done some projects with the refugees at Kakuma and Daadab that left me feeling fulfilled as they ended up well”.

Ever since he began his craft in 2007, Kerosh says that there is one lesson that he has learnt and is grateful about it. “I have learnt to work with people who do not understand what I do without feeling offended.” He concludes that he tries his best to ensure that his work is well understood by the public. “Whenever I want to pass a specific message, I put much effort to ensure that the message is not distorted in any way”, he says.

Asked what his advise would be to the upcoming graffiti artists, he is quick to talk about hard work and practice. “Always practice so as to perfect your art”, he insists.

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An incomplete mural on another part of the wall

 

Maasai Mbili Artists’ Collective – Deeper than just the aesthetic

There are a lot of ways to find healing from whatever’s ailing an individual or society. One of these ways is art. Enter Maasai Mbili Artists’ Collective, a group of free-spirited artistic geniuses -also fondly referred to as M2. These artists re-purpose junk and trash into material for creating art. They are also involved in a lot of community projects in Kibera and beyond.

Maasai Mbili Artists’ Collective is an art studio based in Kibera and founded in 2001 by two brilliantly talented artists; Otieno Kota and Otieno Gomba. The collective has painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, poets, writers. It is however largely known for the visual art it produces such as paintings, collages and sculptures.

I consider myself fortunate to have sat and had a chat with some of these artists at their studio. I was awed and pleased not only by their humility in spite of their impressive reputation and artistic portfolios, but also by the intricate simplicity of their art.

We talked about some of the projects that they have worked on such as Superheroes of Kibera and Ni nyumbani?

Superheroes of Kibera

This was a collaborative project with Nyota Arts. Kevo Stero, an imaginative guy with short dreadlocks on his high top fade, said that the project was meant to inspire the kids of Kibera to embrace their inner and unique superheroes.

They worked with the children through photography, dialogs and designing costumes, to create superheroes relevant to the challenges that they face in the slum. The inspirational thought behind this project is one that anyone seeking to mentor younger generations should have.

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Some photos from the ‘Superheroes of Kibera’ project. Photo courtesy: Maasai Mbili Artists’ Collective

Ni nyumbani?

Ni nyumbani? is a project that sought to redefine the concept of home; to confront the misconception that home is just a roof over your head. In Anita Kavochi’s words, ‘Some children come from emotionally abusive homes, and are assumed to be alright just because they look like they are.’

Anita worked with Kevo Stero and Blak Odhiambo on that project. Among other artwork in an ongoing Wachemba exhibition featuring the Maasai Mbili Artists’ Collective at Polka Dot Gallery, is an installation by Ms Kavochi named ‘Nyumba moja: Father, Mother and Son’. The installation is a depiction of the basic family unit, represented by drawers and part of a bed. She also admitted that a lot of her work features the concept of ‘nyumbani’, and that joining M2 has been a therapeutic journey for her.

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Artwork by Anita Kavochy Pictured at Polka Dot Gallery for the Wachemba exhibition. Title: ‘Nyumba moja: Father, Mother and Son’ Photo courtesy- Maasai Mbili Artists’ Collective.

As I was being told about the project, I couldn’t help but feel the immediate relevance of it from the warmth with which my friend Monicah and I were welcomed by the artists into their space. I was also informed that they constantly brainstorm together even for individual projects. How homely is that? They basically walk it like they talk it.

Art4Peace

After the 2007/8 post-election violence, the artists took initiative to help heal affected children in Kibera. They would go to locations where there was violence with paint and paint brushes. In Otieno Gomba’s words, the first sessions would be difficult. ‘You’d see a kid painting and writing hate political slogans and symbols, but with time, that kid would graduate into drawing a flower. That was a sign that the kid was healing and seeking peace.’

Body mapping

Otieno Gomba told me about a body mapping project they did at Meru. Body mapping therapy via art helps people to come to terms with difficult issues affecting their bodies, in a bid to seek healing/ self-acceptance. That project was targeted at people living with HIV/AIDS. They have also done this project with gay people.

Challenges

On asking what major challenges they face as artists, cinematographer Ronald Ronics promptly said being broke at times. This is mostly owing to the fact that there aren’t a lot of art collectors in our society. However, they don’t work on their art with money being the biggest motivator. What seems to be their principal priority is to inform change and be beacons of hope and inspiration.

On why they’ve never left Kibera, Kevo Stero said that Kibera inspires their art. Sure, they would open up other studios elsewhere if the chance came, but Kibera remains home.

Maasai Mbili Artists’ Collective currently have an exhibition running at Polka Dot Gallery in Karen, till June 3, 2018.

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Art by Kevo Stero hanging on the walls of the M2 studio.
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A wall scribbled on inside the studio, by children during the ‘Ni nyumbani?’ project.
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Inside the M2 studio.

Banana Hill Art Gallery: Where African art lives

What catches your eye as soon as you enter Banana Hill Art Gallery is artwork by Haji Chilonga hung on the walls of the serene building. He is the gallery’s featured artist of the month. Located anywhere between 25 minutes and 2 hours (traffic in Nairobi 🙄) away from Nairobi CBD, is the small and cozy gallery, with a brick exterior.

Somewhat obvious fact: Banana Hill was named so by colonial (bile) British soldiers, after the many banana plantations in the area.

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At the back of the exhibition room is Benard’s desk, the gallery manager. Near that desk is a 1998, blue-green (Bondi blue) tray-loading iMac G3, currently retailing at KES 500,000; so if you know a collector with a spare 500k, you know what to do. Not far from the iMac desktop is a soapstone sculpture by the famous Expedito Mwenda. You surely do not want to mess with the beautiful piece as breaking it would cost you double the original amount.

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IMAC G3 TRAY-LOADING, BONDI BLUE – 1998 Image courtesy: webdesignerdepot.com

As you indulge yourself in the art around the gallery, you’ll be awed by the intricacy of an artist’s mind. You’ll wonder what their inspiration for that painting was, what mood they were in as they carved that sculpture, why they named it ‘The Eye’ when there is evidently no eye nor any vision feature or theme you can deduct from it. There are also hundreds of stacked up paintings in the gallery’s two back rooms. If you are looking for some pieces to spruce up your space, this gallery will leave you spoilt for choice; cityscapes, African scenes, landsapes and portraits, sculptures… The art can be purchased online via M-pesa or Paypal, and can also be shipped for those outside Kenya.

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A section of the stacked up paintings in the gallery.

The gallery is jointly owned by a couple: Shine Tani and Rahab Shine , both well -known visual artists in Kenya. It began in 1994 and has so far worked with more than 70 artists from across the continent.

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They have monthly exhibitions, featuring a different artist each month. This year kicked off with an exhibition dubbed “Supremacy Contest” by Congolese artist Bezalel Ngabo. Other artists who have had exhibition include Ron Ogwang from Uganda, Kenya’s Samuel Njuguna, Tabitha Wa Thuku, and Ann Mwiti. Through this art, you’ll see how similar our African inspirations are, how related our problems are, how alike our muses tend to be, albeit in different forms.

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Wooden carvings. Also, a depiction of my different personalities chilling.

This month’s exhibition by Tanzanian artist Haji Chilonga and runs till 31st May. If you were to walk in to the gallery this month, you’d be treated to a lot of Haji Chilonga’s pleasant artwork on the walls. More exhibitions are scheduled for the year.

Visit Banana Hill Art Gallery and see some creative and beautiful pieces!

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